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Images of Roots, Rock, Reggae…

Jason Bonanno


In my opinion (and what I’ve learned from this class), is that art is a great means of self-expression. To me, art is a visual stimulator, an educator, and the source of a deeper meaning that the artist only truly knows. Artists such as Picasso, Monet, and Van Goh have provided us with masterpieces to interpret and enjoy, although, as I’ve also learned, you don’t have to be a renowned artist in order to make a statement. From the most minute of sketches, blossom pieces of artwork. Thus, as Charles Biederman states in his book, Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge:

Many great artists and art cultures have been born, have lived and died, but art has been born only once and as yet has never died. Thus we consider it as a single organism many thousands of years old, and the result of efforts of untold millions of artists; an organism which has been developing in some arbitrary fashion, but in a definite and specific direction, as specific as the operation of the organisms that produced the art. It is necessary that we become coherently conscious of the particular stage of this development as it exists in our century, if progress in art is to be continued. (Biederman 20)

Here, Mr. Biederman is relating to the efforts of artists to produce development and change, or consciousness there of. Many artists go "untold"; meaning, from the largest of cities to the smallest of islands, art lives.

Therefore, as my main focus for this paper, I chose to rely on art (and Jah!) to be my guide and to provide me with an understanding as to what Jamaica, Rastafarianism, and Reggae are all about. In particular, I took a look at reggae album cover-art as a means of study. Reggae music defines a particular identity for the Rastas and/or Jamaicans. It is a means of communication, thus, reggae album cover art adds more to the music and together, both the art and the lyrics, and make a bold statement.

Art, it should be understood, produced the first forms of recorded language, a language just as reliable for making investigations of human development as is that with which we are familiar in the remains of Egyptian cultures, etc. As a matter of fact, art is one of the more revealing, but at the same time most neglected, sources for studying history of man’s general development. For it is the art that man has literally pictured his notion of the world; and it is in art that mankind has left the largest number of record. (Biederman 21).

Reggae album cover-art has become a very attractive and useful devise to not only sell records, but to portray what the particular music artist is trying to say within the context his or her own music. In the foreword of the book entitled, Stir it Up, by Chris Morrow, we are introduced to the Tuff Gong (Island Records) album cover artist, Neville Garrick. In this insightful intro, he talks about his work as a cover artist for one of the most influential reggae musicians of all time, Robert Nesta Marley. Garrick is responsible for Marley’s "Survival" and "Rastaman Vibration" covers, to name just a few. In regards to this large responsibility he had as a reggae album cover artist, he notes:

The greatest challenge was always to condense all these potent lyrics of spirituality, love, and protest into a singular two-dimensional image that somehow

reflected the music inside the 12" X 12" frame of a record jacket. (Morrow 6)

Not only did Garrick have to say with his art what Marley was saying with his music, but he also had to portray what Marley’s own visual interpretation of his art. Thus, at times, his album cover art was criticized and changed by both Marley and Chris Blackwell, the president of Island records. For example, Garrick recalls:

Without any guidelines, I conceived Bob’s face as a map of Africa surrealistically floating against a cloudy blue sky, with the Rasta colors of green, gold, and red representing the covenant rainbow around Africa. An image of a lion facing east was placed in the area of Ethiopia. This was my symbolic impression of the title Rastaman Vibration. Everyone in the group liked the painting, but I later found out that Bob had a problem with it. (Garrick 7)

Thus, the "true" language and ideas of one artist did not coincide with the language and ideas of another artist. In reggae album cover art, certain symbols and objects are visually expressed in order to illustrate the musical ideas.

In the novel, The Rastafarians, Leonard E. Barrettt Sr. interviews another reggae "artist/poet" by the name of Ras "T". Although before this, Barrett notes that out of all the reggae artists he interviewed, he was reassured that "[Rastafarian] art is not for art’s sake", but rather, "the medium through which they project their social and spiritual message" (Barrett 186). Therefore, this provokes Ras "T" to say in his interview, "Art to me is the integrator of all mankind. As a Rastafarian, I am a humanist and in art I try to integrate all mankind" (187). Art can and is approached from the artist’s standpoint. Ras "T" also makes a point of stating in his interview that he is a "Rastafarian in the ghetto" and because of "economics", "materials will at all times dominate or dictate the idea [of the art]" (187). Thus, the idea of the artist is put down on that canvas or that "12 X 12" album cover that he or she chooses to paint on.

"Words like SURVIVAL, EXODUS, CONFRONTATION [were] so powerful, [that] they needed a thousand pictures to illustrate them" (Morrow 7). As stated in the quote above and concerning what has been stated in this paper already, both Reggae album cover-artists and Jamaican artist alike, expressed visually to people what was to be said in words. Regarding the Rastafarian portrayal in art, Ras "T" declares: "Rastafarianism is not a physical image; it is a spiritual concept. So you do not have to draw a facsimile of a Rasta woman or child; the content of your life expresses itself in various ways, even in abstract forms" (Barrett 189). Therefore, when observing Island/Jamaican art or Rastafarian art, numerous of people, ideas, and symbols are drawn in order to invoke thought in the minds of the viewing audience. Art is a means of visual knowledge and implies a consciousness of reality. In the book entitled, Caribbean Canvas compiled by Frane Lessac, there is a painting named "Officer Troutman" which depicts an island police officer sitting on a bicycle. Above the picture reads, "Break master neck but nuh break master law" (Lessac 10). Here, the seemingly jovial police officer is coupled with a phrase that, to me, symbolizes the idea that the police and/or the law are not a force to be reckoned with. Analyzing symbols in artwork helps the viewer to interpret the given painting. There are numerous of symbols and images in Rasta art and, in particular, Reggae album cover-art.

The colors: green, yellow, red (and black) are the first Reggae/Rastafarian symbols that I would like to talk about. These colors are common in most all reggae album cover art, Rasta clothing etc., and, in my opinion, "speak the loudest" as powerful symbols for this sub-culture. The color "Green" is a symbol for both the lush, green vegetation of Jamaica and the hope of victory over oppression. The "yellow" symbolizes the gold of the Jamaican national flag. The "Red" is a remembrance of the blood shed by martyrs whom died for Jamaica and for the Garvey ideals. Finally, the "Black" is representative of the African lineage Jamaicans declare as their roots and heritage. Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., the author of The Rastafarians, provided me with the information that the "Red", "Black", and "Green" are the colors of the Marcus Garvey movement towards black pride and to seek "ties" back in Africa in order to initiate a movement back to the motherland. (Barrett 143). Thus, Garvey is key player in defining and/or creating other symbols for the Rastafarians.

"Reggae’s connection with Haile Selassie can be traced back to the reformer Marcus Garvey"(Morrow 23). In America during the 1920’s and 1930’s, Garvey initiated a large sense of African pride. He started his own shipping company named the "Black Star Line" in order to ship Africans back to the motherland of Africa. Garvey gained popularity in Africa with his "militant advocacy of black pride and Pan-Africanism" (23). Garvey proclaimed, "Look to Africa where a divine king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is here" (23). Thus, began the Rastafarian’s religious connection with Africa and Prince Ras Tafari.

In one of Bob Marley’s more "pop" oriented songs, he chants, "Jah seatith in Mt. Zion and ruleth all creation!" By Zion he means the African motherland and by "Jah" he is referring to Emperor Haile Selassie, Jah Ras Tafari of Ethiopia as the crowned "Lord of Lords", "King of Kings", and "The Conquering Lion of Judah". On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen is crowned king of Ethiopia (Barrow and Dalton 380). Upon claiming the new title of Haile Selassie from his coronation, he is said to be from the 225th lineage of the Biblical King Solomon (and Queen of Sheba) who claims his roots in the house of King David (Jesus, as well, was from the house of David). This day is one of great importance for the Rastas; it is on this day that the prophecy of both Marcus Garvey and the Bible is fulfilled. Two very important Bible verses relating to this topic read:

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. —Psalm 68:31

And one of the elders saith unto me, weep not. Behold, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. —Revelation 5:5 (Morrow 23).

"Iron like a Lion in Zion" is another Bob Marley lyric that evokes Rasta symbolism. The Lion of Judah, my favorite Rasta-symbol, is representative of Selassie as a member of the house of David. When portrayed as a symbol of Reggae music, the Lion appears powerful, with its mouth wide open and lavish mane to surround its stern demeanor. The Lion of Judah (Selassie) is to lead those of the Rasta faith out of Babylon, the corrupt world in which we live, and take them into Zion, the "ire" motherland. The Lion of Judah is usually adorned with a crown and staff to resemble a king and upon his crown is the "Star of David" to proclaim this king’s lineage as from the house of David. Rastas are encouraged to "CHANT DOWN BABYLON!" and to follow the powerful king into the land of Zion.

In the words of Lee "scratch" Perry affiliate, Max Romeo, "War in a Bab-by-lon", the Jamaican people were suppressed on the very island that they called home. Babylon was a land of "Bald-Heads" and "Bumba Clots" (white aristocratic leaders and adulteresses folk). Jamaica was a land of island beauty and political strife. Seemingly a pair of oxymoron, but this was Babylon. Slavery, the Police, Dancing, Drumming, Trenchtown, Money, Ganja: all of these were symbols and devices of Babylon. The Jamaicans, Rastas, and the aristocracy were instruments of this landmass. This was the island of Jamaica!

In terms of strife in Babylon, an occurring theme of War/Pollution/Chaos on reggae-album cover art was used in hopes of calling attention to the public of what living in a Babylon of Jamaica really was and the huge need for change! In my opinion, Peter Tosh’s album cover, "No Nuclear War", by Neville Garrick in 1987, is an astounding example of this type of album art, demonstrating the "power" of "War in a Bab-by-lon" (Morrow 55). On this cover stands Peter Tosh atop of two nuclear missles, with a gas mask on his face, and lightening bolts shooting out from his fingertips. In the background a nuclear war is occurring and written across the album’s title is the word "holocaust".

Another reoccurring theme in reggae album cover art is "the ganja". Chris Morrow eloquently explains "ganja" best when he writes:

Goat Shit. Lamb’s Bread. Jerusalem Bread. Marijuana. Sensi. Ganja. Weed of Wisdom. Healing of the Nation. I-shence. Kaya. Herb. Collie. Known in Jamaica by many names, ganja (Cannabis sativa) has become internationally associated with reggae. Scores of album cover fed this perception, as they celebrated the herb being smoked in chalices, rolled in spliffs, or majestically growing in fields. (Morrow 58).

Thus, again, we see Peter Tosh with the "Legalize It" album in which he is sitting with his pipe in a field of ganja in an "ire" state.

Symbols in Reggae are symbols in Jamaican culture as well. The people and scenes on reggae album cover art both reflect and resemble the daily aspects of life in which the Rastas experience and partake in. All these aspects and, therefore, the symbols of Jamaican culture are portrayed in Reggae music and coupled with that, the art of this culture. Rastafariansism is a culture in which a nation interferes with and, in turn, creates a religion. If art was the first form of recorded language (communication), then reggae music is, in my opinion, a great example of the communicative abilities of this language only in "ridd’im" form. I am making the argument that reggae album cover art contributed to the appeal of reggae music and in turn people became aware of Jamaica. It "colored the music" (Morrow 7). Neville Garrick makes reference to the fact that his art not only speaks for itself, but inside those "12 x 12" are also the lyrics of the particular reggae artist (Morrow 7). In my eyes, man can compare the artwork that was produced in cooperation with the music it enveloped, to the first sketches. P.B. Horton claims:

Since the day when man first began sketching pictographic ideographs on his cave walls some 25,000 or more years ago, he has been refining his methods of recording and diffusing ideas. (Biederman 49)

Reggae music and its album cover-art is a method of recording and diffusing ideas.

As a result of my exploration of Rasta-art, both physically and verbally, I begin to wonder about what the symbols in my painting truly mean to me. Do I really know what the green, yellow, and red behind the wise, old Rasta deep in thought (referring to my painting) really stands for? Can I picture myself in a flaming Babylon and march with Jah while saying: "CHANT DOWN BABYLON"? Who am I? (As dancehall king Beanie Man would say!)

As I near the end of my paper and now am reflecting on the accompanying painting I have created, I begin to justify things to people who are un-aware of the Rastas. I become excited when I challenge my own knowledge about the Rastafarians, while at the same time, I am explaining why I painted what where and what each symbol and color means. I’ve not only learned a lot about reggae music as a result of this project, but as I became inspired by the artwork that resulted from Reggae music, I then desired to explore my own artistic boundaries. When my friend, "Bermuda Nick", lent me his cherished book on Reggae album cover art, I was hooked. I was intrigued with the Lion of Judah and its portrayal in album art. Imagine; this artwork was and still is a major part of the music business and to think that it is often one of most overlooked ingredients of the music making process. All that I want to say is thank you for the opportunity to do this project and thank you for the opportunity to learn about Reggae music in a scholarly fashion.


Barrett Sr., Leonard E., The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Barrow, Steven and Peter Dalton, Reggae the Rough Guide. London: The Rough Guides Ltd., 1997.

Beachamp-Byrd, Mora J. and M. Franklin Sirmans ed., Transforming the Crown:African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966-1996. New York: The Franklin H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute, 1997.

Biederman, Charles, Art as the evolution of Visual Knowledge. Minneapolis: Bureau of Engraving, Inc., 1948.

Davis, Stephen, Bob Marley. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Comapany, Inc., 1985.

Lessac, Frane, Caribbean Canvas. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1989.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Jamming" on Babylon by Bus, Island Records Inc., 1978.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Iron Lion Zion" on Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives on, Island Records Inc., 1995.

Morrow, Chris, Stir it Up. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.

Max Romeo, "War in a Babylon" on Lee Scratch Perry Arkology, Island Records Inc., 1997.

White, Timothy, Catch a Fire. New York: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1996.